Reform, rupture or re-imagination: understanding the purpose of an occupation

In 2011 occupations have become the tactic of choice for popular movements worldwide. But how exactly does the physical holding of space contribute to a movement's aims?
Guy Aitchison
2 December 2011

In 2011 occupations have become the tactic of choice for popular movements worldwide. But how exactly does the physical holding of space contribute to a movement's aims? This article draws from experience of the student occupations in the UK, to argue that the strategy and tactics of occupation can be understood according to three alternative, but complimentary, visions of political change.

Over the course of the academic year 2010-2011, students and their supporters at University College London carried out three occupations in protest at cuts to higher education and the government’s wider austerity measures. The first of these, which took place in the Jeremy Bentham Room (JBR) between November 24 and December 10, was one of the most prominent of over fifty school and university occupations taking place at that time, attracting significant media attention and serving as a focal point for the national campaign of resistance to the government’s legislation on tuition fees. In February, a second occupation took place in another conference room, the Old Refectory. This occupation lasted several days and fed into the occupation of an entire building in Bloomsbury owned by another London university, Royal Holloway, which served as a radical organising space – the Anti-Cuts Space –before being raided by bailiffs. A third occupation at UCL in support of a lecturers’ strike took place between March 22 and March 24in the university registry. This article is informed by my own experience taking part in these occupations as an activist and PhD student at UCL.[1]

It is striking how, during the winter of 2010, the act of occupation as a political tactic, enjoyed a huge resurgence amongst the student population of the UK at a time when the majority had only a vague idea of what an occupation is and what it was expected to achieve. The over-arching goal of stopping the government’s legislation on tuition fees going through parliament was, presumably, shared by all who took part in the first occupation, along with the idea that occupying one’s university was a worthwhile tactic in pursuit of that goal. Yet when it comes to the more specific question of what the purpose of an occupation is – that is, how exactly it will contribute to the realisation of one’s political aims - there was far less clarity. There is, of course, no single correct answer to the question of what the purpose of an occupation is but instead a number of alternative conceptions of how the occupied space should be configured, how the occupiers should set about achieving their political goals and what their relationship to authority - in the form of university management, elected representatives and the police - should be.


Proceeding through an analysis of the three occupations at UCL, and drawing on examples from other student occupations, this article will show how activists’ conceptions of the purpose of an occupation vary according to an evolving set of political commitments grounded in distinctive visions of transformational social change. Occasionally, these competing conceptions were a source of conflict amongst activists at UCL, as in other occupations, but by far the most significant fact to note is the way in which activists’ understanding of what an occupation is was radically expanded and transformed as part of a broader process of politicization and radicalization. This transformation, I argue, both reflected and reinforced a more general shift, amongst the occupiers, from a broadly centre-left, social democratic politics to a much more radical anti-capitalist politics. In conclusion, I suggest that no single conception of the role and purpose of an occupation should be viewed as universally valid. The experience of occupation will nearly always involve careful negotiation, amongst activists of different political views and backgrounds, of a number of different and occasionally conflicting conceptions of the utility of the collective action they have undertaken, each grounded in shifting and overlapping strategies for social change, none of which can command unanimity. Success - insofar as it can be judged - will often involve a messy combination of different elements from each of these conceptions.

Three Models of Transformational Social Change

The most common framework for thinking about strategies for transformational social change is the traditional opposition of “reform” and “revolution”, but a far more useful approach is that taken by Erik Olin Wright in Envisioning Real Utopias which sets out a sophisticated tripartite model based on “symbiotic”, “ruptural” and “interstitial” visions (2010). These three strategies “differ both in terms of their visions of the trajectory of systemic transformation and in their understanding of the nature of the strategies needed to move along that trajectory” (Wright, 303). They each correspond to different political traditions within egalitarian social movements; emphasise the role of different actors in emancipatory resistance and embody different strategic logics with respect to capitalism and the state.

The central distinction Wright makes is between ruptural strategies and trajectories of metamorphosis. Ruptural strategies involve direct confrontation and political struggle with the aim of creating new institutions of social empowerment through a sharp break with existing institutions and social structures. Activists working within the orthodox tradition of revolutionary Marxism, in parties such as the SWP and the Socialist Party, are the paradigmatic examples of such an approach. The prospect of a revolutionary rupture may seem romantic and far-fetched in normal circumstances, but it is important for our purposes that certain aspects of the strategy – such as the emphasis on sharp confrontation with dominant classes and the state – need not be restricted to “totalizing ruptures in entire social systems” (309).

There are, meanwhile, two alternative visions of change through metamorphosis. Interstitial metamorphosis – perhaps the least well-known of the three - seeks to build new forms of social empowerment in the niches and margins of capitalist society (323). The core idea, prominent within the anarchist tradition, is to create autonomous institutions, which embody the democratic and egalitarian goals activists aspire to. Central to this strategy is the insight that capitalism and the state are not “things” external to society that can be confronted and defeated but a set of social relationships, which negate alternative forms of human association through their own successful reproduction. A free society will not exist until non-coercive forms of human interaction out-compete and displace coercive forms: this cannot wait until a singular, all transformative moment of ruptural change but requires free experimentation and practical testing out of new methods of free association at every opportunity. Although they may not see what they’re doing in these terms, the work of many community activists, involved in projects such as community land trusts and consumer co-ops, is consistent with such a strategy.

Interstitial visions are commonly found in the work of “autonomist” thinkers linked to the alter-globalisation movement, such as John Holloway, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Holloway, 2005; Hardt and Negri, 2001). The ideals and motivations behind such visions, however, go back at least as far as the Industrial Workers of the World, the syndicalist union established at the turn of the 20th century, which propagates a vision of socialism based upon principles of federalism, on free combination from below upward; and, indeed, to past experiments in new-world construction, such as the Italian autonomists, Paris Communards and English Diggers.

The third and final strategy emancipatory social movements may choose to pursue, according to Wright’s framework, is symbiotic metamorphosis. This involves extending and deepening institutional forms of popular social empowerment in a manner that is consistent with the interests of dominant classes and elites (305). Historically, the most important example is the “class compromise” embodied in the relatively stable post World War Two Keynsian settlement, which encompasses a welfare state and a system of collective bargaining between capital and labour. In modern capitalist countries it typically involves social democratic parties, such as the UK Labour party, with links to trade unions, working through the institutions of parliamentary democracy to create electoral coalitions across social classes that compete for political power.

In practice, of course, the visions of social movement activists are far less clear cut and there is a great deal of cross-over between them. The salient point to note is that nearly every strategy for social transformation will embody one, two or three of these methods and ideals to a greater or lesser extent.

Symbiotic Visions of Occupation

The first UCL occupation was, of course, part of a much wider eruption of student activism in response to huge cuts by the Conservative-Lib Dem government to higher education tied to a threefold increase in tuition fees, along with the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. The decision by UCL activists to take some form of direct action was taken at a lively meeting of around 150 students and education workers that followed the storming of the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank. A small group of experienced activists was formed to make preparations and a rally was called in the UCL quad for November 24, the day of the first national “walk out” of university and school students called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the Educational Activist Network and the London Student Assembly, protest groups on the radical wing of the student movement. Following the rally, a group of around 200 marched into the Jeremy Bentham Room, a large conference space near the main entrance to UCL used for receptions, corporate events and by student societies. An immediate meeting was called and a collective decision taken to occupy it as part of the campaign against tuition fees and cuts to higher education. Many of those present, including myself, had never participated in an occupation before with the various Climate Camp protests the only comparable experience. For the over-whelming majority, this was their first experience of any sustained political engagement, let alone direct action.

There was a paradoxical logic at work in this initial act of occupation. It reflected both a radical disenchantment with parliament and political parties and a residual hope that these could be influenced towards progressive ends by convincing a sufficient number of MPs to vote against the government’s measures. The higher education bill provided a focal point for opposition and defined the lifecycle of the occupations. At the same time, the occupation movement was seen by many as the vivid manifestation of an entire generation’s withdrawal from the political system. Activists at UCL initially navigated this tension by presenting the use of direct action tactics as a last resort following the failure of the ordinary political process. This made sense within the context of a popular discourse, played out repeatedly in the mainstream media, which emphasised the “betrayal” of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems who had “sold out” students in abandoning their election pledge to abolish tuition fees in exchange for power. As the initial “statement” drawn up consensually by UCL occupiers, put it;

"We stand against fees and savage cuts to higher education and government attempts to force society to pay for a crisis it didn’t cause. Promises have been broken, the political process has failed and we have been left with no other option."

Implicit in this first statement is the idea that direct action tactics denote a state of exception, to be resorted to when political processes – which, we are to presume, ordinarily function in a satisfactory manner - have “failed”. The statement was accompanied by a list of “demands” addressed to UCL management. The occupation demanded that UCL

  • Issue a statement condemning all cuts to higher education and the rise in tuition fees.

  • Implement a complete open books policy with regards to existing budget constraints.

  • Ensure no redundancies for teaching, research or support staff.

  • Reverse its outsourcing policy by bringing staff back in-house

  • Implement the full living wage package for all cleaning, catering and security staff with no cuts to hours and jobs.

  • Ensure no victimisation or repercussions for anyone participating in the occupation.

  • Allow free access in and out of the occupation.

As Genevieve Dawson points out, regarding the Oxford occupation, unlike a regular protest, an occupation compels a “debate” with the university authorities (in Hancox, 2010, 110). A great deal of care was taken in writing these demands in the first few hours in the JBR to ensure they provided a clear and realisable set of goals with which to negotiate. A working group was set up oversee negotiations with management, and representatives chosen at group meetings to negotiate with the Vice Provost and Head of Security on the occupation’s behalf.

Demands are, by their nature, always demands to some higher authority, usually involving an appeal to that authority to alter the existing state of affairs within the terms of the dominant system. As the occupation progressed and activists’ political horizons - along with their understanding of what it means to reclaim and reconfigure a space – changed, the importance attached to the demands diminished. The second occupation was undertaken primarily as a means to secure an organising space and reinvigorate activism on campus ahead of the TUC demonstration on March 26th. It included almost the entire first set of demands within it, but they were accompanied by more utopian demands, that management would almost certainly never agree to, such as the thoroughgoing democratisation of all university structures. The third occupation, in solidarity with striking lecturers, barely discussed political demands.

Ruptural Visions of Occupation

The care taken over the demands and the importance afforded to them in the first occupation is consistent with a symbiotic strategy for social change in which collective bargaining with the authorities, in the hope of realising an outcome agreeable to both parties, plays a central role. The shift away from a focus on demands reflects the shift from a primarily symbiotic conception of occupation towards one which encompasses ruptural and interstitial visions. As the occupation progressed it became clear that management were unlikely to meet any of the demands and were in any case not negotiating in good faith since they were prepared to go back on verbal agreements when it suited them. A response on the UCL occupation blog, to the first meeting with management, notes “We are highly disappointed that many of our demands were received with evasion and dismissal” by an unrepresentative and unaccountable elite that lacked the “legitimacy” to speak for the whole university on this issue (29/11/2010).

The anger and frustration increasingly felt towards management was part of a growing disenchantment with authority more generally amongst student activists, reflecting a broader process of radicalization amongst those involved in occupation. Cass Sunstein has shown how groups of people in “deliberative enclaves” (shared spaces, on or offline), with some degree of commonality and shared political commitments, will tend towards polarization (2009). As individuals reinforce one another’s opinions, identities harden and opposition to existing social practices becomes more extreme and deeply entrenched (“extremism”, he acknowledges, can be a good thing). Without doubt, this process of polarization took place within the occupations. It is also the case that participation in direct action is, for many people, an empowering and transformative experience. Participants discover their own agency when they confront, negate and ignore the power structures that dominate day-to-day life. At UCL, many activists report entering occupation with a broadly social democratic set of political commitments and leaving with a far more radical anti-capitalist politics. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the ruptural vision of occupation assumed greater significance.


One way in which the antagonistic stance associated with ruptural visions surfaced was in debates over “disruption”. In all three UCL occupations, and the Anti-Cuts Space, tensions arose over the issue of the disturbance caused to university staff and students. These tensions reflect political disagreements over the importance attributed to the occupation as a symbolic protest and as an antagonistic form of direct action designed to interrupt the functioning of the university. During the first occupation, there were a number of heated meetings, over whether student societies should be allowed to make use of the occupied space when they needed it for band rehearsals and so on. The third occupation succeeded in shutting down an entire wing of the university, made up of several offices where dozens of administrative staff worked, for four days. Several activists raised objections to this, on the basis that it would disrupt various welfare functions of the university. For others, this was precisely the point since the occupation was originally conceived as a way to amplify the effects of the strike called by UCU, the lecturers’ union: students, unable to withdraw their labour in solidarity with striking workers, were making use of the most effective tactic at their disposal.

This rationale, it should be noted, is consistent with symbiotic visions of change, which do not disavow the role of struggle. But it was noticeable that a far more confrontational and antagonistic tone accompanied this occupation following the logic of ruptural visions. The BBC’s somewhat patronising observations concerning the non-antagonistic atmosphere of the first occupation - they're quoting Harry Potter rather than Che Guevera..” – almost certainly wouldn’t have been made of the third occupation (BBC News website, 30 November 2010). 

On Thursday 24 March, the second day of the UCU strike, activists simultaneously occupied the registry and blockaded the room in which the university council were scheduled to hold a meeting agreeing the tripling of tuition fees, resulting in the police being called. In turn, Management responded to this escalation by threatening to pursue 13 named individuals for the legal costs for securing a possession order and injunction through the courts. The spectre of crippling financial costs for these 13 individuals, along with the potential end to their university careers, prompted an immediate campaign to “Defend the UCL 13”, along with a rally in the quad, and in the end management were pressured into far less draconian internal disciplinary measures.

Along with the rising importance of antagonism, it is possible to trace the growing significance of the ruptural conception from the beginning of the first occupation in the increasing emphasis placed on the use of the space as a site to plan and co-ordinate direct actions and protests, linking up with groups such asUK Uncut who target businesses alleged to have avoided tax with sit-ins and protests. The occupations also acted as a space to document and co-ordinate responses to police violence and use of “kettling” against demonstrators. A group of IT undergraduates and a freelance software engineer who had met in the first occupation went on to develop Sukey, an “anti-kettling” text service and smart phone application designed to help protesters out-manoeuvre police by providing up-to-date crowd-sourced information on police movements. The use of the occupations as a space to contest and challenge the state apparatus reflects the ruptural vision at work.

Interstital Visions of Occupation

Whilst the function of an occupation, understood according to a symbiotic or ruptural strategic logic, was apparent to most participants from the beginning (albeit not articulated in these terms), the third function only began to be recognised as a distinctive form of political activity in and of itself as the occupation progressed. Nevertheless, from day one, the occupants of the JBR began to act in a manner consistent with a vision of political change premised on working outside existing structures so as to re-configure social relationships along more just and egalitarian lines.

From its inception, the occupation aspired to non-coercive, anti-authoritarian forms of organisation. Internal practices inherited from the alter-globalisation movement, which had in turn adapted them from the Zapatistas and other social justice movements from the global south, were disseminated by student activists who had learnt them from, among other places, the Climate Camp protests. According to these practices, decisions are taken in a decentralized, non-hierarchical form of “consensus” democracy. Alongside consensus, the use of loose “working groups” dealing with particular areas of practical concern, such as media, kitchen, security, legal, tech and outreach, reinforced the principles of autonomy and decentralisation.

This understanding of UCL occupation as a “microtopia” was perhaps best expressed by a final year undergraduate, Sarah, on the UCL blog:

the UCL Occupation was a unique experience for all involved. It’s not just a good story but also a lesson for society. School kids should have the power to speak to or turn down journalists. Everyone, no matter their opinions or status should have a say. Being productive and educated should be something you do voluntarily and enjoy. Politics and ambitious ideologies should be normal topics of conversation. You should be able to argue with, trust, listen to and love everyone you meet." (UCL occupation blog, (31/12/2010)

As with the other conceptions of the role and function of an occupation this one was not without controversy. Whilst some activists no doubt took a purely instrumental view that consensus was a good way to make decisions and foster community in a small group, others were opposed to it entirely. At one point, several activists involved in Marxist-Leninist parties, proposed a move to decision-making by vote – a move that was rejected by the group.

Needless to say, the ideal of a free and open space with a democratic egalitarian ethos was imperfectly realised in practice. Inequalities of gender, class, and education, reasserted themselves in the occupation as with the tendency of more assertive middle class male activists to dominate discussion at meetings. Nevertheless, the anti-authoritarian aspirations of the occupation became an important part of the group’s ideological self-understanding.

The second way in which the occupation can be said to have followed an interstitial strategic logic is in hosting open educational talks and workshops. Initially, these were, again, almost certainly conceived primarily, if not exclusively, in instrumental terms as a way of providing stimulation and learning and encouraging people into the occupation. Yet, as with the practice of consensus, they came to be seen along increasingly prefigurative lines, as a concrete realisation of the more democratic forms of education activists would like to see and a rejection of the “hedonistic and utilitarian” conception of the “neoliberal student” pushed by New Labour and the Coalition (Owen Hatherley in Hancox, 2011; 119). There were talks from lecturers, trade unionists, activists, journalists and students themselves, as well as gigs, poetry readings and dramatic performances. In what seemed like a natural progression, many of those involved in the first UCL occupation later became involved with the Really Free School, a nomadic institution based out of various squatted buildings in central London that self-consciously situated itself within an anarchist tradition of creating autonomous and non-hierarchical educational establishments as part of a wider emancipatory project.

Judging by other accounts, UCL occupation was far from unique in using the space in this way. Indeed, as Lee Satter and Jilly Boyce Kay write this was a “bone of contention as the occupation went on” at the UWE occupation with “process”-focused activists prioritising its use as an “education camp”, and others more interested in “protest”. (REF). On the UCL blog, Jo Casserly wrote, “it is a common mistake of some anarchists to see the occupation of a space, a squat or a social centre as an end in itself rather than a tactic in a far wider struggle.” (29/12/2010)


Here, we see an expression of the traditional Marxist critique of interstitial strategies, that they involve retreat from political struggle to spaces “allowed” by capitalism and the state. This critique is convincing when it comes to certain exclusively interstitial visions – criticised by many anarchists as “lifestylism” – such as the hippy communes of the 1960s. However, if we adopt the more holistic understanding of an occupation as simultaneously a pre-figurative enactment of a group’s political ideals, and as an organising space for protest, the dichotomy of “process” and “protest” does not hold. The “procedural” forms of democratic practice inside the occupation cannot be divorced from its “substantive” political goals outside, but must instead be understood as an additional and complimentary pathway to social change. Occupation as both protest and process involves a simultaneous delegitimation of the neoliberal capitalist order, which prescribes the commodification of education and its restriction to a wealthy elite, and the legitimation of another world governed by alternative logics.


It is common for activists involved in social movements to become fixated on one strategy for political change, disparaging others as ineffective or even counter-productive. In occupations, which, by their nature, bring together activists from diverse backgrounds each with their own particular ideas concerning how their actions will effect change, the co-existence of such strategies will often translate to tensions and conflicts over day-to-day issues. The re-imagination of an occupied space as an autonomous community will, at times, conflict with its use as a revolutionary organising space or as a tool with which to exert leverage in negotiating for reforms from management. Such tensions can be seen as healthy and productive and are in any case inevitable when activists reject a reductive, one-dimensional account of the purpose of occupation. Successful social movements are those that combine a number of alternative strategies for political change and that is why inclusivity and pluralism are so important. The same can be said of occupations.

[1] I am grateful for comments and feedback on this article from fellow UCL students and occupiers, Sam Halvorsen and Jessica Riches.   


Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Empire, (Harvard University Press, 2001).

Hancox, Dan (ed), Fight back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, (openDemocracy, 2011) .

Holloway, John, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, (Pluto, 2005).

Sunstein, Cass, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, (Oxford, OUP 200).

Wright, Erik Olin, Envisioning Real Utopias, (London, Verso, 2010).

This essay was originally published in The Journal for Social Movement Studies.

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